‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Members of the Lebanese civil defence use a dog to search for victims and survivors under the rubble of a building in the Gemayzeh neighbourhood on August 6, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 10 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

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“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.


US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

Updated 29 October 2020

US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

  • It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body

NEW YORK: The US and several Western allies on Tuesday accused the Syrian regime of deliberately delaying the drafting of a new constitution to waste time until presidential elections in 2021, and avoid UN-supervised voting as called for by the UN Security Council.

US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills urged the Security Council to “do everything in its power” to prevent Bashar Assad regime from blocking agreement on a new constitution in 2020. The Trump administration believes Assad’s hope is to “invalidate the work” of UN special envoy Geir Pedersen who has been trying to spearhead action on a constitution, and the council’s call for a political transition.

The Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsed a road map to peace in Syria that was approved in Geneva on June 30, 2012 by representatives of the UN, Arab League, EU, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members — the US, Russia, China, France and Britain.

It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and ending with UN-supervised elections. The resolution says the free and fair elections should meet “the highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora — eligible to participate.

At a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution. That took until September 2019, and since then only three meetings have been held with little progress.

Pedersen, the UN envoy, told the Security Council on Tuesday he was unable to convene a fourth meeting in October because the government wouldn’t accept a compromise agenda which the opposition agreed to. During his just concluded visit to Damascus, he said there was “some valuable narrowing of the differences” that could enable consensus on agendas for the next two meetings.

“If we are able to find agreement in the next two days, it should be possible to meet in Geneva sometime in the month of November,” Pedersen said, dropping the Nov. 23 date in his prepared speech.

Mills, the US envoy, urged Pedersen “to take any measures he thinks are appropriate to facilitate the parties’ efforts ... and also to identify to the council who is blocking progress.”

“Syria is wholly unprepared to carry out elections in a free, fair and transparent manner that would include the participation of the Syrian diaspora,” Mills said. “This is why we need the constitutional committee to work, and why we need the UN to accelerate its planning to ensure Syria’s upcoming elections are credible.”

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen called Assad’s “delaying and obstruction tactics” on the constitutional committee’s work “just detestable.”

He said Russia, Syria’s most important ally, “should finally use its influence by, for instance, just cutting military aid and stopping its support, so that the Syrian regime finally plays ball.”

Syria’s tactics are clear, Heusgen said. “They want to waste time until the presidential elections in 2021. The regime should not have any illusions. The elections will not be recognized if they are held under the present circumstances.”

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere also criticized Assad’s “refusal to engage in good faith” and called for preparations to begin for UN-supervised elections that include the diaspora. France won’t recognize results that don’t comply with these provisions, he said, stressing: “We will not be fooled by the regime’s attempts to legitimize itself.”

Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, made no mention of the April presidential election and countered that Syrians must have “the opportunity to negotiate without interference from the outside.”

“The work of the constitutional committee should not be subject to any deadlines,” he said, expressing hope that Pedersen’s mediation will enable the committee’s work to continue “in line with the agenda agreed by the Syrians.”

Russia also sparred with Western ambassadors over its veto threats that led to the closure of two border crossings to deliver aid to Syria — one in the northeast and one in the northwest — leaving only one crossing to Idlib in the northwest.

The US, Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and others criticized the border crossing closures.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that Syrian government deliveries across conflict lines to the northeast are “not delivering at the scale or frequency required to meet the current health needs.” He said one hospital received only 450 gowns in April, and another received nothing for its maternity wing.

Lowcock also said “the situation of families across Syria is truly desperate,” citing food prices more than 90 percent higher than six months ago.

Russia’s Nebenzia responded, noting “with satisfaction the progress in UN humanitarian deliveries from inside Syria including through cross-line routes,” saying this “proves” the government is providing aid to people including in areas not under its control.